Saturday, May 26, 2007

Star Wars Celebration IV

Some of you will no doubt roll your eyes when you see what I’m about to write, but my life truly changed the day I saw “Star Wars” for the very first time. Karen and I went to the 8AM showing at Grauman’s Chinese and were so blown away that we immediately sat through it again. We saw it a third time when it moved over to the Egyptian theater a few months later. Hiding in the bathroom, we then slunk back into the theater to see it a fourth time! I have, of course, seen it many times since then and, even though it’s not my all-time favorite movie—that honor still goes to “The Godfather”—it is the one film I’ve seen more times than any other.

By 1977, I was already a big science fiction fan, having grown-up on “Star Trek” and NASA space missions. But “Star Wars” was something altogether different. The story was epic but accessible and it was funny, too. I couldn’t remember any movie or TV show that so completely carried me away to another world. To me, “Star Wars” was on the scale of the “Lord of the Rings” novels and the Arthurian legend. I never quite saw movies the same way after seeing “Star Wars.”

Although I’ve (unfortunately) lost that innocent excitement about the franchise, I have nonetheless remained a loyal fan and have seen all five of the original movie’s sequels/prequels—in the theater—on opening day. Indeed, Karen and I stood on line so long to see “The Empire Strikes Back” (the second movie in the series), that I ran across the street to buy a pizza for us to eat while we waited.

No surprise then that I practically hopped out of bed today to hightail it over to the L.A. convention center for “Celebration IV,” a multi-day event commemorating the 30th anniversary of “Star Wars.” I arrived at 9AM, an hour before the doors opened, allowing me plenty of time to scope out the other attendees.

Now I’ve never worn a costume to a science fiction con (i.e., convention), but I always enjoy seeing other people who do. The 501st battalion of Imperial storm-troopers were there in force, cavorting with rebel sympathizers and posing for pictures. I also saw several Padawans (young Jedis) and Princess Leias in all shapes and sizes. An extremely tall Darth Vader caught everyone’s attention as photographers went crazy taking snapshots. Then, at 9:55AM, we all suddenly looked upward where a jetpack-wearing Boba Fett was flying in for a landing. Everyone burst into spontaneous applause. The convention had officially begun!

The mass of people politely poured through the doors before quickly running upstairs to the exhibit hall. There we were greeted by a life-sized replica of Jabba the Hutt, Han Solo’s giant sluglike nemesis. Fans were queued up to buy various “Star Wars” collectibles and I could see lines starting to form to get minor characters’ autographs. The exhibits were all far too commercial (e.g., Hasbro, LucasArts, etc.) for me, so I left empty-handed after a few minutes.

I then stumbled into a large hall next-door where one of the “Star Wars” fan clubs had set-up a life-sized X-wing spacejet like the one Luke flew when he blew-up the Death Star. Now this was more like it! I roamed around and looked at other fan club exhibits: the Mos Eisley cantina, peopled with small action-figures; a lightsaber duel between two Jedis; and a beat-up Honda convertible made to look like Luke’s land speeder. In any other world, it all would have looked pretty silly; but I loved it because it was far more authentic than anything the hawkers next-door were selling.

One of the main reasons I wanted to go to the convention was to see “The Vader Project”—an art exhibit of Darth Vader helmets decorated by 66 “underground” artists and comicbook illustrators. I was not disappointed. One Darth Vader was depicted as the Statue of Liberty, while another had antlers. There was a clown Vader and several that made political statements about war. Shag, the well-known L.A. artist who paints in a mid-20th-century style, turned his Darth Vader into a tiki head—very cool!

From there, I wandered over to the Lucas Archives exhibit—a room filled with costumes and other artifacts from all six “Star Wars” movies. I was in ecstasy! Here were miniature prototypes of rocketships and space stations used during filming, as well as Luke’s bionic arm. Among the most fascinating items was a rubber sculpture of Annakin Skywalker’s charred head, which was used as a model for Hayden Christensen’s make-up when Annakin was turned into Darth Vader at the end of “Revenge of the Sith.”

“Look, there’s Annakin’s burned head!” a father excitedly told his young son. The kid recoiled in horror, but the rest of us thought it was pretty neat!

My feet were starting to hurt, so I decided to find an exhibit where I could sit. En route, my eye caught yet another Princess Leia in a skimpy slave girl outfit (show off!), only this time the princess was actually a guy!

“Argh! Where’s the bathroom so I can wash out my eyes!” a male passerby yelled in mock horror, while the rest of us quickly grabbed our cameras. This was by far the best Princess Leia at the con!

Rejuvenated, I headed into a small theater where fan films were being shown around the clock. Some were surprisingly sophisticated for being homemade. But everyone’s obvious favorite was “The Eyes of Darth Tater,” starring various Mr. Potato Head dolls enacting the final scenes of “Revenge of the Sith.” A microwaved Annakin was turned into Darth Vader while his wife, Padmé, gave birth to twin Tater-tots. ("Star Wars" humor...I guess you had to be there...)

With that, I was ready to return home and so made my way toward the parking lot. There, tucked between several cars, were people changing into their “Star Wars” costumes, including one fellow who was halfway to becoming C3PO. I wanted to tell him that he was going to be a big hit because there were no other C3POs at the con, but I just kept walking.

Then suddenly, as I was almost to my car, I heard familiar deep breathing. Rounding the corner was Darth Vader and two red-caped minions looking very unfriendly. I thought of taking their picture, but ran for the car instead. Best not to provoke the Sith lord, especially when he’s on his way to making a grand entrance.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Charles Phoenix

Charles Phoenix is something of an LA icon. A baby-boomer who grew-up in Southern California, he makes a living collecting other people’s old photographic slides and showing them at sold-out venues. The result is what he calls “histo-tainment”—a combination of history and entertainment—which he creates by providing an hilarious backstory to each slide.

He opened the Anson Ford Theater’s summer season with his “United States of Charles Phoenix” show on Friday. It had been a while since we’d seen him—plus Tim had never been to the Ford—so we decided to go. To avoid parking in Hollywood, we drove to the Universal Studios metrorail lot where we could catch a shuttle to the theater after dinner.

Food options were pretty slim at the metrorail station, so we set our sights on Universal’s City Walk, about half-mile away atop the infamously steep hill at Lankershim and Cahuenga. We waited 10 minutes for the City Walk tram before our stomachs got the better of us. Surely we could walk there a lot faster than waiting for a ride. What a mistake! Tim charged ahead, leaving me a hundred paces behind. Fifteen minutes later, we stumbled into the first restaurant we saw and asked for massive amounts of water. I had completely lost my appetite.

We made it to the theater just as the pre-show entertainment was about to begin: music by Domenic Cangelosi, organist at the Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale. With slightly more than a thousand seats, the Ford is far more intimate than the nearby Hollywood Bowl, which seats 18,000. It was a beautiful night and the crowd—mostly young hipsters and others (like us) of a certain middle age—was thrilled. Let the festivities begin!

The “world’s greatest hula-hoopist” Mat Plendl opened the show by twirling up to eight hula-hoops around his body while dancing to Gene Krupa’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” We held our collective breath and screamed with delight at the end. Charles Phoenix then emerged, wearing a thrift-store suit that he had customized with paint and glitter. The audience hooted its approval. Charles was in the midst of introducing a local pseudo-celebrity in the audience, when he was suddenly interrupted by a blond standing and waving her arms at the front of the theater. It was actress Cybill Shepherd. She obviously thought he was about to introduce her, but sat down when it became clear that he was introducing someone else altogether. An awkward Hollywood moment!

Undaunted, Charles carried on and showed us slides and more slides of families traveling to well-known destinations, like Palm Springs, vintage Las Vegas, Venice Beach, and the wacky Walk-o-Wonders in Columbus, OH. We laughed hysterically at a woman posing in a bra and gorilla mask in the desert and oohed-and-aahed at the space-age monorail zipping above the 1956 Texas state fair.

The show ended with a nostalgic tour of early Disneyland. It was enough to make one weep for happier days. But, instead, we left filled with warm memories and marveling at how lucky we were to grow-up during the wonderful 1950s/60s.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Griffith Park Fire

Karen called at 8:10PM, just as we were leaving on a Baskin-Robbins run. “Quick, put on channel 9!” she said. A small fire that had been burning in the Hollywood Hills all day suddenly flared up and was threatening the world-famous Griffith Park Observatory. Tim and I gasped at the TV screen. The flames looked dangerously close.

Growing up in Los Angeles—and, more specifically, in The Valley—we, of course, witnessed our share of big fires: Bel Air (1961), Malibu (1970), Chatsworth (1983). Seems like the hills above Burbank, where my family lived, burned every summer. In fact, fire was my biggest childhood fear—more fearsome even than lava or death by quicksand! I’ve heard people jokingly say that there are only two seasons in LA—rain and fire—but when flames threaten our cultural icons, like the Observatory and the Greek Theater, it’s no laughing matter.

Assured that the Observatory was indeed not in danger, we resumed our quest for ice cream and headed north on Sepulveda Blvd. We could smell the smoke. “I think I can see the fire!” I told Tim, as I looked east. “Let’s go to the little league fields to see if we can see it from there.”

The little league baseball park sits atop a hill at the southeast end of Culver City. On a clear day, you can see the entire LA basin—quite a spectacular view. The park closes at 9PM, so we raced up the hill. It was 8:55PM.

The pitch-black parking lot was filled with cars—apparently, we weren’t the only ones drawn to disaster. We walked over to a small group of people silhouetted against the city lights.

“There it is!” Tim whispered, pointing to the east.

Even though we were some ten miles away, we could clearly see the orange glow and billowing smoke. No one spoke. Then we all hopped into our cars and drove home to watch the fire on TV. As we neared the house, I could still see the glow looming in the distance. “I think we can see it from the end of our block!” I yelled.

Sure enough, as soon as Tim parked the car, I ran down the street and there it was, looking even more ominous as the flames suddenly took a turn westward. I wondered if the Hollywood sign, which we can also see from the end of our block, was safe. I could hear sirens in the distance.

The cat and I watched the coverage on TV while Tim went to bed. The mayor, fire chief and councilmember Tom LaBonge jockeyed for command of the microphone. The grief-stricken LaBonge described the loss of wildlife and magnificent hiking trails. No longer able to stand it, I turned the TV off at 11:30PM.

I woke up to Tom LaBonge crying on the 6AM news. No structures were destroyed overnight, but all roads surrounding Griffith Park were now closed. I got dressed and walked to end of our block.

The Hollywood sign was obscured by smoke, but all else looked normal. I guess LA escaped another major fire. But just in case, I’ll be monitoring the news all day to make sure my beloved city is safe...